Damascus

Two years ago I visited Syria to catch up with friends who worked in an embassy there.

Fantastic place and, of course, so sad to see what has happened to the country now.

As in Iran, there’s a nutty government but warm, friendly, welcoming ordinary people who love showing off their country to foreigners.

When it’s possible to go there again, I hope people flock back. Damascus has heaps of character. There are lovely boutique hotels and fantastic restaurants which must currently be devoid of tourists.

If and when the situation changes for the better, go.

In the meantime, here’s the article I wrote for the Times about my trip there, and the journey south to Jordan afterwards. This article never appeared chez Murdoch and now never will.

Damascus

The muezzin’s words danced around the headstones. From his minaret they pierced Damascus’ dusty backstreets, following me into the immaculately-kept Commonwealth War Cemetery that I had found by accident.

I was trying to get back to my friends’ apartment, but had taken a wrong turn after lunch. The guard in his booth seemed unconcerned by my arrival. I mimed “is it OK for me to go in?” and he in return entered into the spirit of charades, and motioned for me to push the gate open.

1,165 soldiers lie here. Lance Corporal R.J. Norris, for example, died on March 30 1918, aged 21. 23 years and another world war later trooper H G McCormick of the Royal Scots Greys had been killed aged 22 on June 15 1941. Row after row of young men who’d probably left Blighty whistling a jaunty tune to cover up their nerves, only to end up for eternity next to an arid field filled with prickly pears.

Pausing for coffee in Damascus

In these “must plan ahead” double-u double-u double-u days, when even a B&B in Burkina Faso can be reserved over the internet in seconds, Damascus was a reminder to me that a bit of flexibility in a holiday itinerary can reap huge rewards. Take finding the cemetery for example. Or seeing children happily being tolerated skateboarding in the courtyard of the grand Umayyad mosque. So too the unplanned stop at the ultra-modern Julia Dumna café which wouldn’t have looked out of place in Miami Beach, where I couldn’t help but stare at a group of young Syrian “ladies who lunch” nibbling on sushi and smoking hookah pipes, all hidden behind voluminous, designer sunglasses – not really the mental picture of Damascus I’d had before I arrived.

Lunchtime in Damascus

And then there was my train ride to Amman in Jordan. The plan had been to ride a portion of the same railway that had been famously attacked by Lawrence of Arabia (2010 was the 75th anniversary of his death) and which once ran all the way south to Medina. I’d read romantic tales of a rickety old train with antique carriages that wobbled along the route.

In England I was told it went twice a week to the Jordanian capital, but when enquiring through contacts in Syria this was revised in true Inshallah (“God willing”) style to “well, it certainly used to run” and “we think it might still be going, but from Der’a”  to “it’s still going but freight only” and eventually “perhaps it’s better if you get the bus?”

The old Hejaz railway station in Damascus

I arrived with my backpack at the Hejaz station, completed in 1917, around which horn-blaring yellow taxis buzzed like disturbed wasps. If only I had read my Lonely Planet guide which talked of its proposed redevelopment into a shopping centre, because the old 1908 steam loco parked outside was the only train I could find. The empty ticket hall had no passengers, only an exhibition of film posters under its ornate roof and behind that was a door with an Arabic sign which probably said “no entry”. I pushed past anyway. Where once a platform and tracks stood there was now a huge crater.

Back inside by the First Class window a headscarfed lady sat underneath a portrait of President Assad. Could I buy a ticket, I enquired in French, my Arabic not really having got further than “good morning” and “thank you”. She replied I could – but only to Aleppo, and even then that didn’t go from this station.  So, no train to Amman? She laughed and gave me directions to the bus station.

Damascus

I hailed a taxi, driven by a jolly, rotund man with black teeth who seemed genuinely excited to have a foreigner in his cab. I tapped the meter – more charades – motioning for him to turn it on and trying to look stern. He shrugged and laughed and honked his horn as we pulled out into the rush hour traffic. He chatted in Arabic, ignoring my shrugs of non-comprehension, as we ploughed on through drab suburbs for 15 minutes, until we stopped outside a garage with a sign for the Challenge VIP bus company. I was slapped on the back and my new friend rubbed his chin before deciding 150 Pounds (GBP£2) seemed like a fair amount.

Backstreets of Damascus

The last of my Syrian pounds went on my GBP£7 ticket to Amman, which was scheduled to take about five hours for the 180km journey. The bus was full as we pulled out on the dot of 4.30pm, with Arab pop playing quietly on the speaker system, past grubby 80s apartment blocks festooned with rusting satellite dishes and out into the scrubby Syrian countryside on the road south. A young man in a fading Manchester United t-shirt sat next to me, engrossed in a book, while an elderly Bedouin and his wife sat across the aisle.

We reached the border at Nasib in darkness after an hour and 20 minutes. Everyone trooped off so I followed. I couldn’t work out why some people were handing over cash at a booth until I saw the words “departure tax”.

Departure tax? On a bus? No one told me I was leaving from the Michael O’Leary school of border crossings. Yes, I was told, 500 Syrian Pounds (GBP£7) and no they wouldn’t take dollars or euro. The look of genuine panic that spread rapidly across my face must have been obvious to all and this time it wasn’t charades. I was too preoccupied  worrying if I’d at least get a blanket in the border police’s holding cell  to notice my companion in the Manchester United t-shirt organising a whip round. Whether out of genuine compassion or just not wanting to get delayed by an A1 cashless English numpty, notes and coins were bundled together and in a minute I had my precious receipt. I thanked him and pressed some dollars into his hand.

It was a further two and a half hours before we left for Amman – exit stamps inspected, bags searched, visas inserted, duty free perused (bottle of holy water anyone?) and topped off with the somewhat surreal experience of a Jordanian customs official throwing sweets around the bus like a pantomime dame at Christmas. Trundling south into the Jordanian night gave me time to reflect on the benefits of accepting the unexpected and, Inshallah, scheduling the unschedulable into any future travels. The snores of my fellow travellers suggested I was perhaps the only person on the bus to have yet fully grasped this concept. END

Damascus

Palmyra

Relaxing in a cafe on the road from Palmyra to Damascus

Border with the Golan Heights. The Israeli army post is in the background

Golan Heights in the background, Assad in the foreground

All photos & text @ Will Hide